November 21, 2018

Counsel of Old Saybrook Planning Commission suggests new rules for orderly public hearings

Attorney Mark Branse, Counsel to the Old Saybrook Planning Commission and author of article on conducting public hearings

Mark Branse, the attorney for the Old Saybrook Planning Commission, has written an article in an environmental group’s newsletter, suggesting proper rules of conduct for commissioners and the general public at hearings on controversial subjects.

Attorney Branse must have had his own proposals in mind, when at the Planning Commission’s February 16 public hearing on the Preserve, he threatened to call the police, when he felt that members of the audience were getting out of hand.

Branse’s thoughtful article, entitled “Order in the Court,” was published in “The Habitat” of the Connecticut Association of Conservation and Inland Waterland Commissions.

Although Branse begins by citing a couple of court cases, one when a hearing officers used “foul language and threats” against an applicant, and another when an “atmosphere of hostility” was created, when an issue was made of the applicant’s ethnicity, his article is far from a dull recitation of zoning court cases.

Rather it is an easy to read summary of suggested rules that should be followed at town public hearings.

Listed under “Be Prepared,” he gives the following advice to hearing chairmen.

  • If you suspect trouble, have police on hand, preferably in uniform. Have more than one if any doubt at all and more on call.
  • Have a large room – oversized in fact. Packing people together contributes to their anonymity and encourages heckling and shouting out (the “voice from the crowd.”) Have a board or other way to display plans, etc. It avoids having people call out, “I can’t see that.”
  • Have an AV (audio visual) system. People will sit in the back row and shout, “I can’t hear.” Invite persons with hearing problems to sit in front of the room (they won’t.)
  • Set out the rules of the game before the applicant ever stands up: “We will hear from the applicant; then questions from the Commission and staff; then those in favor; then those opposed; then those who don’t wish to be categorized as in favor or opposed. There will be no shouting, applause, booing, heckling, or other disturbance. Those who break these rules will be ejected from the meeting. There will be no exceptions.
  • Explain what kind of preceding this is (wetlands, zoning, etc,) and what the criteria for review are. Have copies of those criteria available for distribution and ask people to address their comments to those criteria. . ….  And stick with it.

Under “Keep the lid on,” Branse writes, “Nothing spirals out of control faster than a mob mentality. You must react swiftly and decisively to the very first person who gets out of order.  Shout them down at once and explain that the next person who interrupts the proceeding will be ejected.”

He also writes, “Chairmen: Keep Your Own Troops in Line. Your own colleagues may be your worst enemy, if they are playing to the crowd, are bigoted people, or are just plain stupid. You have to keep them in line, too. If you don’t think you can handle your role, have your town attorney present to do it for you. The town attorney doesn’t have to run for office and (usually) doesn’t live in your town. Let him/her be the lightning rod for misdirected energy. We’re used to having people mad at us! We can handle it.”

Obviously, Branse himself had his own rules in mind when he took over the mike from the Planning Commission Chairman Robert McIntyre and threatened to call the police at the February 16 public hearing on the Preserve in Old Saybrook.

Read the full text of Branse’s thoughtful article in the Winter 2010 newsletter of the Connecticut Association of Conservation and Inland Wetlands Commissions, Vol. 22, No. 4.  Branse’s article can be found on page 6.